What Causes El Nino? 12 Things (2023) You Have to Know

Have you heard of the climate patterns called El Nino and La Nina?

These weather phenomena occur in the Pacific Ocean and have the potential to impact the entire globe.

The factors that cause El Nino are complex scientifically and can be difficult to understand, especially because it doesn’t occur consistently.

Furthermore, it can have widespread effects, causing poor weather, wildfires, ecosystems, and negative impacts on the economy.

For this reason, it’s important to learn about the causes of El Nino, when it occurs, and what you can do to mitigate its influence on your land.

1. What is El Nino?

El Niño (meaning “Little Boy” in Spanish) is a climate pattern that occurs in irregular intervals of 3 to 5 years when warm ocean water in the western Pacific shifts eastward towards the coast of South America, causing changes in atmospheric pressure and wind patterns.

When an El Nino event occurs, warm surface water in the western Pacific moves eastward toward the west coast of the Americas.

This prompts changes in atmospheric circulation and precipitation patterns.

As these changes occur, you’re likely to see droughts, flooding, impacts on agriculture and fisheries, and other economic activities.

There are also effects on the global climate that can result in extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes.

2. What is the history of El Nino?

A South American fisherman first identified El Nino in the 1600s.

He noted periods of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean.

Because the pattern typically peaks around December, the full name to refer to this phenomenon is “El Nino de Navidad.”

3. What causes El Nino?

What causes El Nino is the central question — after all, this pattern has such an impact on the global climate.

It’s normal to wonder why it’s happening.

Is it caused by humans?

Does it simply exist in nature without artificial aid?

El Nino is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is caused by a complex interaction between the ocean and atmosphere.

This interaction begins with the weakening of trade winds that blow from east to west across the Pacific.

These winds allow warm water to accumulate in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

This water builds up and triggers a shift in the atmospheric circulation that causes the ocean currents to change direction.

4. What is the difference between El Nino and La Nina?

Both El Nino and La Nina are part of a larger climate pattern called the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

However, they serve as opposites.

El Nino is a warm weather event while La Nina is a cold weather event.

La Nina — also called El Viejo or anti-El Nino — has the opposite effect.

It means “Little Girl” in Spanish.

When La Nina events occur, trade winds are stronger than usual.

As a result, warm water is pushed toward Asia, and the West Coast of the Americas has an upwell increase.

This brings colder, nutrient-rich water to the surface.

With cold water in the Pacific, the jet stream is pushed toward the north.

La Nina can prompt a drought in the southern U.S. along with heavy rains and flooding in the Pacific Northwest and Canada.

Furthermore, if a La Nina event occurs during the year, then winter average ocean surface temperatures will be warmer than normal in the Southern U.S. and cooler than normal in the Northern U.S.

It’s also possible for hurricane season to be more severe in La Nina.

That said, there are some positives.

The cold waters that La Nina brings contain more nutrients than is typical.

This water supports marine life and attracts cold-water species such as squid and salmon.

5. How often does El Nino occur?

These events occur every 3 to 5 years.

However, both the timing and intensity vary significantly.

bulletTiming: Although this inconsistency can be frustrating, scientists can predict the onset of El Nino either months or years in advance.

bulletIntensity: Some events are stronger while others are weaker.

The stronger instances can affect global weather patterns and climate.

As it influences global weather patterns, which affect human lives and ecosystems, it is critical that El Nino can be accurately predicted.

Scientists use satellites, moored ATLAS and PROTEUS, drifting buoys, sea level analysis, and XBTs to monitor weather conditions.

6. How long does El Nino last?

On average, an El Nino event lasts around 9 to 12 months.

However, this isn’t always consistent, and the timeline can vary.

7. What are the impacts?

After you ask, “What causes El Nino?” your next question is likely, “What are the effects?”

Here are the core impacts on the world around us — many of which you may not know go back to this naturally-occurring pattern:

bulletChanges in rainfall

This weather phenomenon can lead to droughts in areas of the world like Southeast Asia and Australia.

However, it can also cause flooding in areas like South America and the southern U.S.


Storms are more common with El Nino.

For instance, hurricanes and tropical storms are more likely to occur in the Pacific Ocean.

However, they are less likely to occur in the Atlantic during an event.

bulletAgricultural impacts

Both crop failure and crop damage can occur due to droughts, flooding, and temperature changes.

This means that farmers may not be able to hit the quotas that they anticipate.

bulletDisruption of fisheries

Due to the changes to ocean current sand temperatures, El Nino can disrupt fish populations and how they’re used in fishing industries.


El Nino can increase the risk of wildfires in certain regions.

If it makes certain regions drier and hotter, then wildfires are more likely to occur.

For instance, Indonesia (a tropical region) is more likely to have a wildfire during an event if there is a prolonged drought.

That said, this isn’t true everywhere because El Nino can bring cooler and wetter weather conditions as well.

bulletHealth impacts

When rainfall patterns and temperatures change, diseases like malaria and dengue fever can spread more easily.

bulletEconomic impacts

For economies that heavily rely on agriculture and fisheries, El Nino can have disastrous effects.

When it causes poor weather, it can cause real issues for farmers and fishermen trying to grow and produce food to be sold.

8. How does global climate change factor in?

Unlike global climate change, El Nino is not caused by humans.

However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t interacting with global climate change, which is rooted in human behavior.

Thus, scientists believe that this weather phenomenon may be impacted in both frequency and intensity by global climate change.

Some studies suggest this correlation between the increase in climate change in more frequent and stronger El Nino events.

9. Can El Nino be managed or mitigated?

El Nino itself cannot be prevented.

However, individuals and communities can work to mitigate its impacts through effective planning and response.

Some of the most effective measures for management include:

bulletEarly warning systems

Notification systems help ensure that the community is properly prepared.

What could El Nino bring?

Anything from a flood to a drought to a hurricane.

Governments and communities should have a system that monitors ocean temperatures, weather patterns, and any other indicators that give insights into both the onset of an event as well as its severity.

bulletEmergency preparedness plans

You can’t always control nature, but you can control how prepared you are.

Communities and governments can mitigate the impacts of El Nino with a proper plan.

This plan should include responses to floods, storms, and other hazards that may occur.

bulletSustainable agriculture and fishery methods

As noted above, agriculture and fisheries can both suffer because of El Nino events.

Communities can implement sustainable methods of both to help with management and mitigate any loss.

Here are a few ideas: crop diversification, irrigation, and fisheries management.

bulletForest and land management

In some areas, this phenomenon has the potential to increase the risk of wildfires.

You can help by not contributing to this risk and managing your land effectively.

For instance, you can participate in controlled burning.

This helps to reduce the risk of wildfires and prevent them from spreading.

bulletWater management practices

Droughts can occur in particular regions during El Nino events.

If you know your area or land will be affected, you can engage in water management practices that will help to offset this extreme.

For instance, you can store excess water during wetter periods and conserve water during dry periods.

This will ensure you don’t drain much-needed water resources in your area.

10. What causes El Nino to end?

There are a few different factors that prompt El Nino to end.

First, the warm water pool that’s present in the Western Pacific drains toward the east and the north and south poles.

Next, because this is happening, thermocline in the Western Pacific occurs.

Thermocline is a steep temperature gradient in a body of water.

It’s indicated by a layer above and below where the water is at different temperatures.

Finally, this thermocline causes the surface temperature in the Western Pacific to cool and end El Nino.

11. What are some current and future impacts of El Nino on the U.S.?

Despite occurring in the Pacific Ocean, El Nino affects the world overall.

However, let’s zoom in a bit to see what the impacts are on the U.S. specifically.

When one does come, the primary changes are to precipitation patterns, temperature, and storm frequency, which impact agriculture, water resources, and infrastructure most.

El Nino events will continue to become more frequent and intense because of climate change.

As a result, it’s important to stay vigilant and prepared.

12. What can individuals do to reduce the impact?

As an individual, it may feel like El Nino is so much bigger than you.

Can you, as just one person, do anything against a large climate pattern that impacts nearly 200 countries?

It’s daunting for sure.

That said, because climate change affects El Nino, there are certain things you can do to help.

By reducing your effect on the environment, you can mitigate the strength and frequency of future events.

Here are some sample actions that you may consider: reducing your energy consumption, conserving water in your household, and supporting sustainable agricultural practices.

If you’re a landowner, your impact probably goes a lot farther than you think!

Make sure you stay up to date on any El Nino news and consider the potential influences of an event.

It never hurts to get and stay prepared for these types of weather disruptions.

Final Thoughts

So, what causes El Nino?

Ultimately, this naturally-occurring weather pattern is caused by an interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere.

However, it’s now believed that climate change is causing El Nino events to increase in strength and frequency.

As a result, everyone needs to understand how El Nino works and get prepared for how these weather events (and their impacts) could affect life.

With the right steps, it is possible to mitigate how El Nino affects our world.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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